Seek First to Understand

Published on Mar 14, 2018

Since I became politically aware in the 1970s, I have admired Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter. You don’t have to be a member of a specific political party to know these are people who have committed their lives to serving their family, their community, their country, and their world. The national Rotary Club magazine recently published a tribute to President Carter.  Now 93, he still seems vital, thoughtful, and committed to peace in service to the world.  He says his work at the Carter Center is mostly about “waging peace.” One of his key beliefs is the importance of engaging with both sides in a conflict to try to “bring about a peaceful understanding between adversaries….” He says that people who have a difference of opinion can often find a resolution. Sadly, the commitment to getting along is vastly missing in current political debate, social media back-and-forth, and interpersonal or organizational discussions.

President and Mrs. Carter have worked for peace and freedom around the world including supporting human rights to health, housing, voting, education, and other things someone would need to live a life of one’s choosing. President Carter talks about respect for those different in some way from ourselves, but who are just as intelligent, ambitious, and hardworking as we are. Often they have similar values we would find out about if we could just talk rather than shout or tweet, harangue or label.

An article by John Hall, the CEO of Influence & Co., in Forbes Entrepreneurs (13 Simple Ways You Can Have More Meaningful Conversations) on August 18, 2014, gives suggestions on how to connect with others. Perhaps, if we learn to talk to each other, we could get to the goal the Carters advocate: respecting others, even if different from us. Hall suggests that most of our “conversations” fall apart when neither person actually wants to communicate.  He provides several steps to meaningful conversation. One is, “Ask good questions” to learn more about the other person. Almost everyone wants to talk about themselves. It is the main way we gather information and connect.

Another way to engagingly communicate is to be genuine. Try to find something about the other that you can relate to.  Do you share life experiences such as: Children? College attendance? Career choice? Hobbies? Military experience? Or something else? Hall also suggests trying to find a way you can add value to the other person. Not necessarily giving them advice but perhaps expressing appreciation or valuing of their experience or service. It is also a good idea to recognize a common friend or colleague whom you both may admire.

The fifth habit from Dr. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is “Seek First to Understand and then to be Understood.” If you ask about others and listen in a genuine way, find common experiences, and recognize the value of some aspect of the other person, you are a long way toward understanding. It is what the Carters want for us all.